When USC visits Stanford on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX), there will be plenty of interested observers aside from those in the camps of California's two finest private universities.
The suits representing DirecTV and Pac-12 Network will have their own agendas as well, as their sides are engaged in one of the nastiest TV spats since, oh, DirecTV stared down Viacom in August.
To be sure, the Pac-12 honchos want a USC victory to keep its ranking high and on track to play for the BCS championship game (even if they won't admit it to their Stanford hosts). DirecTV, on the other hand, wouldn't mind a Cardinal upset that would render the following week's USC-Cal game - the Trojans' first on the Pac-12 Network - much less meaningful and therefore making it less urgent to cut a deal.
Of the nation's top five satellite/cable TV providers, DirecTV is the lone holdout on the Pac-12 Network, which began broadcasting about a month ago. The negotiations broke down in late August and the sides have engaged in a less-than-friendly PR war, particularly from the Pac-12 side.
Conference commissioner Larry Scott fired a missive imploring Pac-12 fans to dump DirecTV for cable outfits that carry the new network(s). Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour then went public with her switch to Comcast, putting it on YouTube for all to see.
But for all of Pac-12's machinations, it's losing leverage by the week. The most important conference games will be shown on FOX, ABC and ESPN's networks, as part of the stipulations of the TV deals. And USC, the Pac-12's most important and arguably its only national brand, will make few appearances (if any, as none is scheduled as of now) on the Pac-12 Network after the Cal game.
Why is DirecTV so important? Because it has the NFL Sunday Ticket (through at least the 2014 season) and therefore it owns the sports TV market. Full disclosure: I used to own a restaurant/sports bar and we had to have DirecTV if we wanted to stay in business - even though we had to pay an exorbitant amount for the commercial fees of the package.
Related: Mike Nixon on Matt Barkley || Rule of Tree on USC-Stanford memories
So far, the Pac-12 Network has broadcast 11 games, with three more this week and two next week. Oregon cannot like the fact that two of its first three games basically would be rumors to the national audience, damaging the chances of running back Kenjon Barner's Heisman prospects. Three of Cal's first four games - other than this week's trip to Ohio State - would be on the Pac-12 Network (no wonder Barbour was so eager to switch).
A USC victory over Stanford puts more pressure on DirecTV to make a deal ahead of the Trojans' conference home opener. But a USC loss gives the satellite giant much more breathing room as it would feel less inclined to compromise. It can then conceivably snub the Pac-12 for the entire football season without getting huge blowbacks from its subscribers. If the Pac-12 Network doesn't hop on DirecTV this football season, it could be next August before talks heat up again.
OK, enough about the TV wars, back to the field ...
The USC-Stanford game is one of only two games matching nationally ranked teams, as we continue the abominable "preseason" specter now plaguing the college football season. The Trojans have been sliding in the rankings the past two weeks despite winning both games by double digits, but this week, a simple victory should be enough to impress the voters and computers alike.
Stanford is the only Pac-12 team that Matt Barkley has not defeated since he became the Trojans' starting quarterback as a true freshman in 2009. In fact, the Cardinal have owned USC of late, winning the last three and four of the last five. Those Stanford victories have all been memorable:
- In 2007, Stanford won, 24-23, as a 41-point underdog at the Coliseum to end USC's national title run.
- In 2009, with Stanford winning 55-21, then-coach Jim Harbaugh opted to go for two after the Cardinal's final touchdown, prompting a testy post-game "what's your deal" exchange with then-USC coach Pete Carroll.
- In 2010, Stanford won on a last-second 30-yard field goal, 37-35.
- Last year, in an epic showdown, Andrew Luck led Stanford on a last-minute drive to tie the score in regulation before outlasting Barkley and the Trojans in triple overtime, 56-48.
But this time around, Stanford will be Luck-less and USC is once again a double-digit (though barely) favorite with an eye cast on the national championship chase. Stanford will need to use its ball-control, run-oriented offense to shorten the game and keep Barkley and his fleet receivers on the sideline. And if the game is tight late, the Trojans will have to count on freshman walk-on kicker Alex Wood as Andre Heidari is out with a knee injury.
Will USC's title hopes vanish in its first conference game? Can the Trojans keep winning to help the cause of the Pac-12's fledgling TV network? There's much riding on this, so don't blame Larry Scott if you spot him secretly signaling the "Fight On" salute when he thinks nobody is looking.
Other games with BCS implications:
Notre Dame at Michigan State, 8 p.m., ABC - The Irish are back in the news after they joined ACC for all sports except football (sorta), but winning this game will make them actually relevant. Notre Dame is seeking its first 3-0 start since the 2002 season to become part of the conversation for a BCS bowl. Michigan State is now the highest-ranked Big Ten team and aspiring for more than a shot at the Rose Bowl.
Alabama at Arkansas, 3:30 p.m., CBS - Until Louisiana-Monroe shocked the world last week in Fayetteville, this was supposed to be a monster game. Now this has the makings of a monster rout, with Hogs QB Tyler Wilson reportedly out. The intrigue for this game now won't be if Alabama can keep its repeat-title hopes alive, but if Arkansas interim coach John L. Smith can last a whole season if he suffers another humiliation at home.
Florida at Tennessee, 6 p.m., ESPN - Once upon a time, this was the game of the year in the SEC. But with Tennessee's dive into irrelevance, this rivalry has been dormant, as Florida has won the last seven in the series, the last five by double digits. The Vols are off to a good start this season and the Gators just came off a gritty win at Texas A&M. The winner of this game just might have a shot to win the SEC East.
BYU at Utah, 10 p.m., ESPN2 - After both schools left the Mountain West to go their separate ways in 2010, the intensity of the Holy War ebbed some as now it's played early in the season instead of being the final regular-season game. Nonetheless this game is particularly crucial to BYU, off to a 2-0 start and now with a shot at a BCS at-large berth and Boise State coming up five days after playing the Utes.
TCU at Kansas, noon, FX - The Decided Schematic Advantage decidedly did not come to Kansas with Charlie Weis, whose team blew an 11-point lead to lose to Rice last week. The Horned Frogs will be making their Big 12 debut, with aspirations of winning their new conference in the inaugural season. This game might be decided early.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel: